SINGAPORE: Over a lunch meeting in Washington on May 4, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and ASEAN foreign ministers discussed a range of issues including economics and trade, North Korea as well as the South China Sea dispute. Significantly, Tillerson stressed the importance of Southeast Asia as a strategic partner to the US and reaffirmed US engagement with the region.
Tillerson’s statements are the latest in a recent series of signs that the Trump administration has not forgotten about ASEAN and Southeast Asia. Earlier, Tillerson had accepted the invitation to attend a series of ASEAN-led meetings in the Philippines in August and US Vice President Mike Pence had said that President Donald Trump would attend the ASEAN-US and East Asia summits in the Philippines, as well as the APEC meeting in Vietnam in November.
While these are initial encouraging signs to ASEAN countries who have been concerned over Trump’s “America First” policy, it is also important to note that US presence at ASEAN-led meetings might not necessarily mean a concurrence of their respective interests.
Moreover, it also raises the broader question of the kind of regional order that the US envisions should be in place in East Asia, and how the US vision fits with the objectives of other regional stakeholders.
CONTESTED VISIONS OF ORDER IN EAST ASIA BETWEEN THE US AND CHINA
For the past several decades, peace and stability in East Asia have been built on a regional order characterised in large part by US economic and military primacy. This order is defined by free trade and US security alliances, resembling a hub-and-spokes structure, as well as a complex web of overlapping multilateral arrangements.
While some of Trump’s statements and policies since coming to power might suggest a re-evaluation of US commitment to some of its longstanding principles, administration officials have sought to reassure allies and partners that the US would continue to be committed to East Asian security and stability.
Nevertheless, the US is likely to find it more difficult to sustain the US-led global and regional order and its interests will be challenged more regularly in East Asia and beyond. Even though the US remains the strongest power in the world in political, economic and military terms, there is a relative weakening of its structural power and position in the global and regional order.
Particularly within the East Asian context, China’s incremental rise has arguably reduced the power gap between the two countries.
As China’s relative power and influence increase, it has implemented initiatives that seem like the elements of an alternative regional order centred on Chinese leadership. This does not mean that China is abandoning the existing regional order characterised by the strong presence of the US in economic, political and military terms. In fact, Beijing continues to support the useful elements of the current order, such as free trade and globalisation.
However, China is certainly creating a preferred regional order that would serve its interests best. This has come in the form of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and the One Belt, One Road initiative. While the complementarities between the respective visions put forward by the US and China are clear, there are also competing elements.
Given that the greatest impact of Sino-US competition will probably be felt in East Asia by virtue of geography, it is important that ASEAN - as the central regional institution - is prepared to respond to this major power competition for regional leadership. ASEAN’s response will play a big part in determining peace and stability in the region.
ASEAN HAS A ROLE TO PLAY IN SHPAING REGIONAL ORDER
Certainly, ASEAN has been dealing with the impact of Sino-US competition in the region since the early 2000s, when China stepped up engagement of Southeast Asia. Thus far, ASEAN has countered the negative effects of major power competition in the regional order in three main ways.
First, despite fractures among its member states arising from the South China Sea disputes, ASEAN has progressed significantly in other areas of cooperation, such as the establishment of the ASEAN Economic Community in 2015, facilitating dialogue among member states and countries outside of ASEAN, and even coming to a consensus with China on completing a draft framework for the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea.
These initiatives and mechanisms have contributed towards maintaining ASEAN unity and centrality in the East Asian multilateral order.
Second, ASEAN’s promotion of an open and inclusive regional order has given a stake in East Asian security not only to the major powers but also to the so-called middle powers, such as Australia, Japan, South Korea and India. The recognition by other regional countries of ASEAN’s importance and centrality in the regional architecture is important for an organisation that is made up of 10 small- and medium-sized states.
Moreover, having other regional countries involved in the maintenance of regional stability could help to temper any negative impact arising from Sino-US rivalry.
Last but not least, ASEAN has always advocated a complex web of bilateral and multilateral arrangements at the sub-regional, regional and global levels, and across the political-security, economic and socio-cultural sectors. This has resulted in numerous channels of communication between the US and China, as well as among other regional countries.
These channels not only offer opportunities for dialogue and strengthening mutual interdependence, but also provide crucial mechanisms for tackling issues of common concern.
Clearly, ASEAN has played an instrumental role over the last few decades in maintaining a stable regional order in East Asia. With contending visions of regional order promoted by China and the US today, ASEAN occupies a critical position in the regional strategic landscape. Over the long term, major power rivalry for regional influence might force a re-reading of ASEAN’s core norms and principles.
An urgent task for ASEAN would thus be to consolidate its regional leadership role and decide on how the institution and its member states could best respond to the competing visions of regional orders offered by the US and China.
The longer ASEAN takes to plan its place in the evolving regional order, the less relevant or useful it might become in regional affairs.
Bhubhindar Singh is associate professor and coordinator of the Regional Security Architecture Programme at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) at Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore. Sarah Teo is an associate research fellow with the same programme.